Saturday, September 23, 2017

Acheton: I Get By With A Little Help From My FAQs

Since my last post, I've made all sorts of progress with Acheton.  Some of that progress is legitimate, and some of it...  Well, let's just say that I consulted some walkthroughs.  I'm only human, and even my patience has its limits.  (I'm probably more patient with CRPGs than adventure games, as my posts on Moria and The Game of Dungeons will attest.)  As has become standard, break all of this progress down by area/puzzle.

The Desert:  I've previously expressed some concern about the sheer size of this game.  I was afraid that, despite it already being enormous, there might be a very large amount of it left to explore.  As it turned out, I was needlessly worried.  Yes, it's very large for a text adventure, but the desert was the last major area that I hadn't yet been to, and in the end I found the whole thing reasonably manageable.

As for the desert, I couldn't figure out how to survive it without getting lost and dying of thirst.  After several hours of heading south from the beach with various combinations of items in my possession, I cracked and consulted a walkthrough.  What I discovered was that you don't enter the desert from that direction at all.  Instead, you need to go through the tunnel behind the Ningy, and follow the passage until you reach the top of a cliff.  Jumping down from the cliff results in you breaking your neck, and the parser doesn't understand any attempts I made to climb down.  The solution is to drink some gin before you jump.  This relaxes your body, and allows you to survive the fall.  I can't say that this solution makes much sense to me.  One of the garden gnome's clues points towards it, by saying that a drink can be relaxing, but it was far too obscure for me.  I might have figured it out through trial and error, but I seriously doubt it.

Once again, alcohol solves all the problems.

One passage near the bottom of the cliff leads back to the Ningy Room, and another leads into a series of desert canyons.  At the beginning of these canyons is a spring, and navigating your way through is a matter of conserving water before you die of thirst.  There's a cave with a barrel, which you need to fill with water to allow you to explore more of the canyons.  There's also a pool with contaminated water that will kill you, and a cave on a cliff ledge where you'll find a flask of perfume (one of the game's treasures).  At the end-point of the canyons is a desert oasis, where you'll find another treasure (a persian rug) and an entrance into a large pyramid.

The Pyramid:  At first it seems like there's not much in the pyramid: just a single room with a cactus in a pot.  In reality, there's loads of stuff inside, and some of the most dangerous sequences in the entire game.

The pot that the cactus is in has the following words written around the outside: BLEI AMEDI.  The more observant among you might realise that is says "I AM EDIBLE", but I just blundered through by trying random things.  One of those things was EAT CACTUS, and I was rewarded by shrinking down and being crushed by my inventory.  On a second attempt, I dropped all of my gear before shrinking, and when I was small enough saw that there was a crack I could enter.

At this point I remembered the glowing marble, which had previously been too small for me to see the visions swirling inside.  After quickly restoring an old game and returning to the cactus, I ate it with the marble in my possession.  When I shrank down it retained its regular size, and was revealed as a glowing palantir.  (That Tolkien influence was inescapable in gaming for the 70s and most of the 80s.)  All of the visions that the palantir showed me were of the Ruling Council of Acheton eating various types of food.  They weren't helpful now, but later on I put some things together and worked it out.

For the moment, I descended into the crack.  There was a small room, a passage heading east, and another hole in the floor.  I was warned that I wouldn't be able to come back this way if I went down, so I explored the east passage.  What I found was a long tunnel, with various letters written on the south wall.  What I also found was a balrog, which killed me with its fiery whip.  (It's amusing that this is a teeny-tiny balrog, like maybe an inch high.  Or maybe it's normal-sized, and everyone in Lord of the Rings is an inch high?  It's possible.)

This sequence was super-tricky, and required a lot of trial and error.  You need to pay attention to the palantir: sometimes it glows dimly, sometimes brightly, and sometimes very brightly.  When it glows very brightly the balrog is near, so you have to head back west.  When it glows brightly you should wait.  You can go east, but about half the time the balrog will be waiting for you, and heading back west makes the palantir stop glowing for reasons I'm not sure about.  When the palantir glows dimly, you can go east.  Eventually you'll enter a room with a deep pit, and the balrog at the bottom.  There's also a scarab you can claim.  Getting out is tricky, though, because the palantir will extinguish and you'll be left in the dark.  You need the letters on the south wall, which spell out the word LORNIWYQ.  Saying the word teleports you to safety.

Except, it doesn't.  It actually teleports you into the pit with the balrog, who kills you instantly.  The actual word for teleporting to safety in QYWINROL.  As always in Acheton, remember: save often.  That way it doesn't feel so bad when the game slaughters you without mercy.

He's angry because he's so tiny and adorable.

With the balrog tunnel done, it's time head down the passage-of-no-return.  There you'll find the Gate of Isis, a dead end with coral beads (more treasure), and another dead end with a gigantic mushroom.  The mushroom comes into play later, but for the moment I'll describe the deadly hell-hole that lies beyond the Gate of Isis.

It's not so bad at first.  It leads into a temple, where there's a mummy wandering around.  If you stumble into the mummy he'll kill you, but it's not too hard to avoid him because he moves in a very predictable pattern.  There's a north-east passage out of the temple that circles around to where it started, but it also leads to an ancient torque (another treasure).  The mummy circles around this passage constantly, so you need to follow him in and waste no steps, otherwise he'll catch up to you and throttle you to death.

There's also a south passage out of the temple, and this is where the game just gets plain nasty.  The passage leads into a series of rooms, each one containing a different variety of sleeping serpent: a viper, a cobra, a boa constrictor, etc.  There are three treasure in these rooms (a tourmaline bracelet, a carbuncle, a bronze candlestick), but you can only take two of them, because there's a bloody great viper coiled around the candlestick.  You need to wake up the snakes, and this can be done by sacrificing some treasures on the nearby Altar of Ra.  This is a pretty obscure verb to be using in a text adventure, but what else is there to do with an altar?  And after shrinking your inventory is fairly non-existent, so it's not too hard to figure out which items work as a sacrifice.  My main worry was whether I'd get the sacrificed treasures back, but as it turns out, I had more immediate concerns.

Sacrificing a treasure on the altar causes all of the snakes to wake up.  It also causes the walls to start changing colour in a rainbow sequence (ROYGBIV), which is just as well because there's no way I'd have figured out how to escape otherwise.  You need to get back to the temple with the candlestick, but if any of the snakes catch you you'll be killed.  Their movements are in sequence with the wall colours, though, so a bit of trial and error is required to figure out the correct path.  Okay, a lot of trial and error.  A LOT of trial and error.  I was at this for a couple of hours.  I made maps, and charts.  The temptation to look up the solution was strong, but I was determined to get through it on my own.  I did it eventually, with the candlestick in my possession, but it was tough.  In terms of the number of times it killed me, this sequence is probably the single most deadly area of a text adventure that I've ever encountered.  (I'm not just talking about the blog here, either.  I mean every adventure game I've played, ever.)

Why did it have to be snakes?

With that done, all that's left in the pyramid is to find a way to escape.  Remember the mushroom I mentioned earlier?  If you eat a piece of it you'll receive a vision that shows you some letters of the alphabet.  That wasn't so hard to figure out, as the edible cactus already had me in the right frame of mind for chomping down on a fungus.  What took me a little longer to figure out was that the vision changes depending on which direction you approach the cactus from (it's in a large cavern).  There are three different visions, and you need to put them together to form a password.  I've done it a few times now, and got a different password each time.  I'm not sure how random it is, but you can't just learn the word in a previous game and use it again without visiting the mushroom.

So I had the password, but typing it in did nothing.  This was the second point where I caved, and looked up the answer: I needed to say the word while standing in front of the Gate of Isis.  Doing that teleported me all the way back to one of the desert canyons, but I was way up high on a ledge with no way to get back to the ground.  Climbing down resulted in my death, as did jumping.  I didn't have any items except for some treasures: the rest of my inventory was back in the pyramid, having been discarded before I ate the cactus.  I tried some magic words, I tried praying, I tried typing obscenities (hey, it worked in Aldebaran III).  I took a look over all of the inventory items in the game for something that might help me get down, that also wouldn't crush me when I shrunk.  I should have seen the answer then, but it completely slipped by me.

So I looked up the answer again.  I find that the closer I am to finishing a game, or finishing a large section of a game, the more likely I am to consult a walkthrough.  Maybe it's frustration, or simply the desire to get to the end and finish the game, but my patience is notably lessened.  The same goes for mapping as well; if you ever look through my maps for something like Bard's Tale, you'll see a marked dip in thoroughness in the final levels as compared to the opening ones.

The answer was that I needed to bring a piece of thread with me, and keep it on my person while shrinking.  Just like the marble/palantir, it keeps its original size and becomes a rope, and when you're teleported out of the pyramid it stays rope-sized.  With that, it's easy enough to climb back to the ground and head back to the spring at the beginning of the canyons (and from there get back to the Ningy Room).  The only loose end is the treasures that were sacrificed on the Altar of Ra, which can now be found at the foot of a sphinx not far from the spring.  Done, and I only needed to cheat three times to do it.  It won't be the last time, unfortunately.

The Ice Floe:  Back in the ice caverns, there's an ice floe that melts about five turns after you first encounter it,  If you step into the centre, you'll smell a number of scents, going clockwise: an onion field, a citrus grove, a barn, the sea, ozone, an orchard, a vineyard and a coffee plantation.  Eight options (one of which led back to the ice passages), but no matter how many times I saved and restored, I never found anything on the ice floe.  As soon as I saw the visions in the palantir, though, I knew it was the solution.  Each time I looked at the palantir I saw a vision of the Ruling Council of Acheton enjoying a banquet, with seven different courses: fish, sorbet, ox, soup, coffee, fruit, and a champagne toast.  All that's required is to take the palantir onto the ice floe, move in the direction that corresponds to the vision that it shows, and you'll find a necklace.

'Ralph Witt' might be a reference to Witt's End from Colossal Cave Adventure.

The Maze of Mirrors: Okay, so this is a puzzle which I completely gave up on solving myself.  In the wizard's house there's a maze of mirrors, and every time I entered it I became hopelessly lost.  Occasionally I would find an osmium hunting horn, but whenever I tried to take it, it was revealed as an optical illusion.

Consulting a walkthrough revealed a number of things that I would never in a million years have figured out.  The first is that there's an invisible clock in an area not far from the maze.  I had heard it chime occasionally as I passed through, but never stopped to investigate. You can take it, but it's not of much use while invisible.

There is a way to make it visible, though, by waving the amulet found in the mines.  I had previously been told a clue that hinted at the amulet having some sort of power, but it wasn't even close to enough for me to figure this out on my own.  Not only does the amulet make the clock visible, but it can make any object you wave it over invisible, and also return it to visibility.  Both of these abilities will become important later on.

So how does this relate to the mirror maze?  Well, you need to take the clock inside in order to find the correct path.  Every time you move the clock displays a time, and you need to move in the compass direction that corresponds to the small hand of the clock.  After a few moves you'll find the osmium horn (not an illusion this time) floating in mid-air.  Getting back out of the maze is done using the same method, by moving in the compass direction opposite the hour hand of the clock.

These puzzles are brutally difficult, and I would also say that they are somewhat unfair.  Perhaps it's just that I'm not as smart as a brain-trust of Cambridge mathematicians, but I really would have appreciated some more clues.  Apparently the commercial release by Topologika in 1987 had a hint file, and if I had any sense I would have played that version.  But no, here I am sticking to my chronological guns, and unable to legitimately beat this game.

I've got the horn!  Er, so to speak.

The Philosopher's Stone: This was a quick one, and miracle of miracles I worked it all out on my lonesome.  In the caves there's a room with a grey stone, and a book with details on how to transform lead into gold.  Every time I tried to read the book it crumbled to dust, but that's okay because it's apparently not important to the solution.  In the mines there's a big lump of lead, which needs to be brought to the room with the book and the stone.  (Maybe it can be done elsewhere, I'm not sure.)  Drop the nugget, pick up the stone, say TRANSMUTE and voila, instant gold nugget.  I do love a short, simple puzzle.

Another puzzle that requires a bit of outside knowledge to solve.

The Rembrandt Portrait: There's an art gallery with a painting in it, but the thing is too large to carry out.  I'd thought I needed to shrink it, but the solution is much more complex than that, and involves the magic word ZOOGE that I had seen scrawled on a wall elsewhere.  It also involves the stars that are painted on the walls in various locations around the caves.  If you use the word in an area where there's a star, any item on the ground will be transported next to the vault (where you need to take all of your treasures to win the game).  For some reason it only works in the dark, which is odd, but at least there's a hint about it written in the vault.  This is how you get the portrait out of the gallery, but there's no star there: you need to paint one yourself using a can of spray-paint.  Needless to say, I didn't work any of this out on my own.

ZOOGE!  It's quite fun to say.

The Wizard's Dungeon: Early in my time with this game I had stumbled into a room in the wizard's house with a bubbling cauldron, and been transported into a dungeon cell.  I never found my way out, and quietly put this on the back-burner.  I was pretty sure that I'd be leaving it until last.

With no other obvious puzzles left for me to solve, it was time to finally go back there.  Once again, I had absolutely no idea what to do.  My only clues were a word the wizard says when he transports you in (NERKU) and a word that an elf pops up and says after a while (UKREN).  Otherwise I was stumped, and once again I resorted to looking up the answer.  Not only am I more likely to do so towards the end of a game, but once I break the seal it's far more tempting to just keep looking.  After all, I've already cheated once, haven't I?

The wizard's dungeon is a maze of sorts, but it's one that you create yourself.  You begin in a cell, and after a number of attempted moves you'll find yourself at a junction of passages.  To escape, you need to recreate the exact sequence of moves that you made while in the cell.  It's another very clever puzzle that I wish had some sort of hint towards the solution in the game.

The maze leads to a library, where you'll find an ancient papyrus scroll.  It can't be read, but it is a treasure so it needs to be collected.  Moving any direction from the library brings you to a hole, and descending is the only way out.

This leads to another maze, a labyrinth of small passages, each with a hole in the ceiling.  It can't be mapped by dropping items, because there's a thick layer of smoke covering the floor, but through a process of moving about and exploring all of the holes I found some coins and a stamp.  I also found a dusty ante-room that led to some stairs flanked by a pair of stone lions.

You might expect that these lions would come to life when you try to descend the stairs, and you'd be right.  If you pass between the lions while carrying any treasure, they batter you to death with their stone paws.  At first I tried to pass them with my lamp turned off, but that's no good.  The trick is one I've mentioned earlier, and it involves the amulet.  You need to make your treasures invisible before you can get past the lions.  This was a really satisfying puzzle to figure out, but that satisfaction was somewhat ruined by the fact that I never would have known about the amulet in the first place without looking it up.

An unsurprising death.

Beyond the lions is the wizard's back door, which is locked.  The obvious solution was to use my keys, but they didn't fit, and I wasn't able to break the door down.  After a while of trying random stuff, I started using some of the magic words I'd found, and eventually hit on the solution: NERKU UKREN (which can be typed as one command, or separately).  Alas, my triumph was short-lived: as soon as I uttered the words the invisible treasures that I was carrying exploded and incinerated me.  You need to make your items invisible to get past the lions, then make them visible again to get past the door.  With that done, you'll be teleported to an area not far from the Slab Chamber.

The List of Shame:  Before I finish this post, here's a list of all the puzzles that I couldn't work out on my own:

  1. Climbing the Ningy before tipping it over.
  2. Drinking the gin to fall safely down the cliff.
  3. Using the mushroom password at the Gate of Isis.
  4. Turning the thread into a rope to get down from the canyon.
  5. Finding the invisible clock.
  6. Using the clock in the maze of mirrors.
  7. Using the amulet to make items visible or invisible.
  8. Using ZOOGE to transport items in rooms with stars.
  9. Painting a star to transport the portrait out of the gallery.
  10. Navigating my way out of the wizard's dungeon.

I'm pretty sure this list will be bigger before I'm done.

Heading for the End-Game?  At this point, there are no other obvious puzzles for me to tackle.  I'm sure there are more that I'm not seeing.  I've located 49 treasures, which doesn't seem a round enough number to be correct.  For the moment, though, I won't be looking for any more treasures.  Now it's time to try to put all of my efforts together into a single run, to see if I can collect all of those treasures before my lamp runs out.  I had wondered if the Timeless Cavern could be used to recharge it more than once, but it's a moot point, because as far as I can tell there's no way to get back there without being killed.  So I need to plan out an efficient path through the game, and hopefully it'll be enough to get me to the end.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Acheton: Steady Progress

One difference I've noticed between CRPGs and adventure games, in general, is that it's easier in the former to gauge how far you'll progress within a certain timeframe.  For the most part, CRPGs are pretty straightforward, and progress is often a simple matter of making your character stronger.  With adventure games, progress is made in terms of puzzles solved, and areas unlocked and explored.  It only takes getting stuck on one puzzle to bring everything to a crashing halt, and whole weeks can be spent banging your head against the game with nothing to show for it.

I was worried that this would be my experience with Acheton, but I'm happy to report that I've solved a number of puzzles, and made significant and steady progress.  As usual I'll break it down by puzzle as I describe my various breakthroughs.

The Wine: One of the treasures in the game is a case of wine that can be found in the wizard's cellar.  The problem is that when you try to remove it, the case screams out loud and attracts a pack of dogs that tears you apart.  The solution is to also have a pillow in your inventory, to muffle the screams.  I discovered this one by accident, but I'll take my solutions where I can get them.

My pillow put a stop to the wining.

The Gnome and the Lamp: In the wizard's garden there's a gnome who runs away if you try to catch him.  I had initially thought that you needed to burn the hedge maze down to catch him, but in the course of testing it to write this blog I discovered that you just need to make three attempts.  After the third attempt he offers to give you a clue at the cost of 10 points, but that's pretty irrelevant when you can save and restore at will.  He gives more than one clue (which I also just discovered while testing things out for the blog), and I took great pains to get as many of them as possible by abusing the save/restore functions.  These are the clues he gave me:

  • "The Ruling Council of Acheton wants you to know that you have to get quite close to the giant before you can deal with him, and that it is possible to do this safely."  I've already solved this problem, as detailed below, and I can't see how this clue is helpful.
  • "The last adventurer who passed this way told me from his death-bed that there is more than one use for the magic wand."  I've found what is probably a magic wand, in the tunnels behind the Ningy, but I haven't discovered even one use for it yet.
  • "Mr Witt's mother-in-law, who was the last wife of Pharaoh Yelka-Oekim III, has asked me to tell you that there is a great source of heat below Acheton.  It is possible for you to make use of this, though you cannot get anywhere near it." No idea about this one yet.
  • "The general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Cave Workers, who was drunk at the time, mandated me to tell you that the prime reason for drinking is to help you relax."  I have a pot of London Dry gin, but there are no situations where being relaxed seems helpful just now.
  • "The Wizard, when he first brought me into existence, bade me say that the material of your lamp was forged timeless eons ago."  This is the one clue I figured out, and I'll get to it in more detail below.
  • "The old man, who passed this way as a boy after digging the mine informed me that the amulet is a powerful charm."  I've found an amulet in the mine, and there's a deaf old man elsewhere in the caves.  I took the amulet to him and tried a number of verbs (GIVE, THROW, SHOW, DROP, WEAR, RUB, WAVE), but he didn't react to any of them.

There might be more clues than these, but I probably tried it around fifty times, so I doubt it.  As I said above, though, I figured out the clue about the lamp being timeless.  In an earlier post I mentioned that there was a Timeless Cavern, and that lingering in it for too long caused the lamp to burn out.  The trick is to leave just one move before the lamp burns out, when it is "burning very brightly".  As far as I can tell, that brings it back to a full charge.  I haven't tested whether this can be done multiple times, but I doubt it.  Adventure game designers are rarely so kind.

The Giant: There's an area with a giant wandering around, who will step on you if you end up in the same location as him.  You can slip past him to an alcove, where you'll find two treasures: a beryl, and a porcelain plate.  (The plate has a pile of salt on it, which I'm sure will be useful at some point.)  The problem is that the way the giant moves around stops you from being able to get back out again.  I needed to find something to either help him notice me (an unlikely solution) or to kill him or knock him over (far more likely).  As usual when I'm stuck, a look at all of the inventory items I'd found proved helpful.  In this case I hit upon the marble, which despite being small seemed like a possible way of tripping him up.  Sure enough, if you throw the marble at the giant he goes crashing to the floor and you can escape.  The marble even comes through unscathed, which is good because there's a vision swirling in it that I need to decipher at some point.

The convenient survival of an essential quest item.

Swimming: The ocean and the desert were the two major obstacles I'd been concerned with in my last post, and I've made zero progress in navigating the latter.  The ocean, however, I'm pretty sure that I'm done with.  I got through the swimming portion of it through trial and error.  If you swim too far north you'll die in a whirlpool, and if you go too far south you'll die on the cliffs.  Swimming north-west three times from the beach will guide you between Scylla and Charybdis, the whirlpool/sea monster combo from Greek mythology, and into some new caves.  You can only take one item while swimming, and it needs to be the lamp so that you can illuminate these caves.

Navigating between Scylla and Charybdis.

There are two items to be found in the new area: a tiara (one of the treasures) and a dead fish.  Eventually you'll arrive at a familiar bridge.  In an earlier post I mentioned that there is a bridge where Scylla pops up and eats you when you try to cross.  This is the same bridge, but this time you're approaching it from the opposite direction.  It's a simple matter to distract Scylla with the fish and cross the bridge back to the main area of the game..

The Dinghy:  That's not all that needs to be done on the ocean: there's also a dinghy.  You can sail it once you have the triangular cloth, but everywhere I tried to go with it resulted in me being dashed to my death on a coral atoll. Eventually I decided to see what would happen if I just waited a few turns, and let the current take me.  It still swept me to my death, but I found that jumping off just beforehand resulted in me being washed up on an island.

On the island I found some driftwood, a single palm tree, and four caves.  One of these caves contained some emeralds, but I couldn't find anything else.  A ship flying a white flag, and seemingly crewed by ghosts, sailed past without noticing me.  I thought perhaps I needed to set the driftwood on fire to get its attention, but I couldn't figure out how.  Later on a ship with a black flag landed, and a crew of pirates disembarked and killed me.

This one took a LOT of trial and error.  First, you need to climb the palm tree when the pirate ship arrives, otherwise they will find you no matter where you are.  While you're hiding, the pirates go into one of the caves before leaving.  If you enter the same cave and dig, you'll find a chest full of doubloons.

Hiding from the pirates, matey.

With that done, you need to get the attention of the white boat.  I was right about the driftwood, but you can't make a fire with it initially because it's scattered all over the beach.  I tried all sorts of things to make it into a pile, but all you need to do is pick it up then drop it.  It makes sense, I guess, but I only figured it out by accident.  Once that's done you can light a fire with a match when the white ship appears, and the ghost crew will pick you up and deposit you in the harbour cave near the slab room, back in familiar territory.

The Ice Maze: This is yet another puzzle I solved by accident.  It's a maze of icy caverns, each with three exits.  Exploring will eventually put you in an area where the ice cracks under your feet and dumps you into deadly freezing water.  When I went to explore it recently, though, I had the thermometer in my possession, which constantly gives you the temperature of the room you're in.  The ice caverns alternate between -10 and -4.  As long as you're in a cavern with -10 temperature, it's safe to proceed south-east or south-west.  If you're in a cavern with a -4 temperature, you can only safely head back north; going SE or SW will kill you.  Deep in the caverns I found a sceptre and some mink gloves.

Navigating the ice passages.

The Combination Room: With a sceptre in my possession, I was reminded that the game also had an orb and a crown.  I can't for the life of me remember where the myth comes from, but I know that the three go together, so I took them all to the King's Combination Room to see if anything would happen.  When I arrived, the king's butler appeared and presented me with a treasure chest.  I go back and forth with puzzles like this.  A lot of adventure games require outside knowledge for their puzzle solutions, particularly on the topic of mythology.  That's fine for me, because I have a pretty good base knowledge on that topic.  Sometimes, though, I feel like an adventure game should be complete in itself.

Excellent butling, good sir.

The Roc's Nest: The ice maze didn't just provide me with the solution to the king's combination room, but it also provided me with the mink gloves.  With those I was able to take the mithril habergeon, which had previously been too freezing for me to touch safely.  I'd been waiting to get my hands on the mithril armour for a while, because I suspected that it would protect me from the Roc in the wizard's garden.  The Roc guards the western path of the garden, and when it carries you away its claws puncture your lungs.  The armour protects against that, and instead of killing you the Roc carries you to its nest.

Surviving the Roc's claws.

In the nest there's a moonstone, and four unhatched eggs.  Nearby in a dead end is another treasure, an adamant diadem.  Of course, if you hang around long enough the eggs will hatch and a Roc fledgling will descend on you and tear you to shreds.  Elsewhere in the area is a locked cage with four winged serpents inside.  This was a simple one: you unlock the cage, release the serpents, and find a safe place to wait while the serpents and the rocs kill each other.  Once that's done you can enter the cage, where you'll find a tunnel leading back to the wizard's garden.

So that's where I am, quite a bit further through the game than I was as of my last post.  I made no progress at all as of last night, though.  I've got no idea what to do about the desert, or the ice floe with its various scents, or the wizard's dungeon, or the hall of mirrors.  I have the clues the gnome provides now, but none of those are helping much at the moment.  I'll give it a few more days, but if I go much longer without figuring anything out I'll probably get some hints from a walkthrough.  I've done pretty well to get this far with only looking at one hint, and I won't be ashamed to look a bit more should I get really stuck.  It's a challenging game, but not so devilishly hard as I'd been led to believe (at least so far).  Maybe I'm just getting better at these things.